You may know the Sheffield-based songstress, maverick and fighter Nat Johnson best as the former front-woman of Monkey Swallows The Universe and Nat Johnson and the Figureheads. She performed the music of Connie Converse at Sensoria Festival this year nd recently finished her enchanting new album, Neighbour of the Year, which is due for release on 17 November.

How does Neighbour Of The Year differ from your Monkey Swallows The Universe and Figureheads albums?
Lyrically, there’s personal and then there’s personal. Neighbour of the Year deals with the cycle of anxiety as I experience it. It’s not only meaningful, but genuinely useful. It helps me keep a good perspective on my own mental state. I used to write something then figure out what I meant after. Now I tend to consciously work through my thoughts during song writing, so it’s more likely to have a clearer, personal revelation.

Musically, it’s still me, but I hope you can hear over ten years’ experience and development. The Figureheads marked a mid-point where I wrote these quiet, sparse songs, but they shared a space with other kinds of songs. Whereas now, I’m giving into the sparse kind of music I’m more comfortable and experienced in making. How that translates live is important and I have a band of talented multi-instrumentalists giving me great flexibility and freedom.

What is your favourite track on the album?
I want to say ‘Shelter’, which means more sentimentally because I wrote it for my husband, but I’ll choose ‘Not Now, Horse’, because musically it’s my biggest achievement.

What was it like working with well-known Sheffield producer Dave Sanderson?
Dave’s fingerprints are all over this album. He really understood and cared for the songs. We developed them together in the studio, rather than me going in with fully formed ideas, so we were able to try different approaches and see what felt right. ‘Shelter’ was delivered in a single take and it felt like that was the only way to do it. We just had to wait for the right conditions, the right day, the right mood, to capture it.

There are some backing vocals on ‘I Can’t See You’, where I asked Dave to make them sound like they’re in a Tim Burton film. That gave us the idea of assigning film directors to some of the songs. We had Wes Anderson for the playfulness and little surprises of ‘DOG’ and Shane Meadows for the directness of ‘March, March’.

On the subject of Neighbour of the Year, do you make a good neighbour?
Not really. I wrote the album in my house and the walls are pretty thin, so whenever I’m writing or rehearsing I know I can be heard. I must drive my neighbour mad because he usually turns his radio on. So that’s partly what the track ‘Neighbour of the Year’ is about. That and the fact that when you’re aware someone is physically close but you don’t really know them, you can’t help wondering about their life sometimes. He’s a private guy. God, I hope he doesn’t read this.

What can we expect from your Women Of Steel performance, celebrating the women who worked in Sheffield’s factories during World War I and II, at the Cathedral on 26 November?
I know we’re playing ‘in the round’, which will be unusual. I love playing the Cathedral and think it’s going to be wonderful. I’m looking forward to seeing the Women of Steel statue and being able to say I helped put it there.

What are your plans for 2015?
The UK tour starts at the end of January and finishes at the Greystones on 6 February. We’ll be playing some Monkey Swallows the Universe and Figureheads songs alongside the new ones. We’re also taking our Connie Converse Sensoria show to a couple more cities and thinking about recording some of that. Ideally, I’d like to start work on another album, but we’ll see.

natjohnson.co.uk

Photo by Andy Brown

Phoebe Seymour